Here's a passionate tale: It's about a young couple in love and a legendary ship that founders in the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg. Perhaps you've heard it? Nope, it's not the onscreen romance of Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukater, but it is strangely linked to the Titanic saga.
The story starts last summer, when a pretty, English Titanic enthusiast named Sarah Berry told her dashing boyfriend Simon Hewitt about a century-old novel she had heard about. Fourteen years before the real Titanic set to sea, Berry explained, this book seemed to predict the great ship's demise in eerie detail. "I was incredibly intrigued," says Hewitt, 33, a London investment banker, "whether this could be true."
The coincidences are astonishing: In the 1898 novel, titled Futility, Morgan Robertson, an American writer whom many thought had extrasensory powers, describes a vessel that is the "largest craft afloat and the greatest of the works of men." It is an "unsinkable" 800-foot-long colossus (the real Titanic measured 882.5 feet) with 19 watertight compartments (the Titanic had 16) and too few lifeboats (24, compared to the Titanic's 20). And it sets sail in April, meeting its tragic end in the same way. Most uncanny is the fictional ship's name: the Titan. Says Berry: "It's almost as if Robertson foretold what was going to happen."
The more Hewitt learned, the more he knew that his beloved Sarah, 24, a policewoman in Sussex who zealously collects Titanic memorabilia, had to have a prized first edition of the book. "And once I set my mind on something," says Hewitt, the youngest of six children born to a Brighton grocer, "I see it through."
For two months he searched for an 1898 edition, to no avail. Along the way, however, he discovered that in 1912, after the Titanic went down, a savvy American publisher, noticing the amazing similarities, reissued the book as The Wreck of the Titan. After that, it drifted into oblivion, along with its obscure author. With the help of the Library of Congress in Washington, Hewitt finally tracked down an original copy of the 1912 edition, which he bought for $350 from a book collector in Pasadena, Calif. But his real dream—to buy a genuine 1898 edition for Sarah—soon faded. The only copy he could locate was kept under lock and key at the University of Virginia library in Charlottesville.
Then Hewitt hit upon an idea. Why not publish a facsimile edition of Futility just for Sarah? He soon convinced Zoe Jasper, a researcher at the university, to assist the project. "It was too fragile to photocopy," says Hewitt. "But they photographed a few pages to show how it was laid out." Using his 1912 version as a reference, he had the whole text typeset as it first appeared—a $3,200 process. "That's when I thought," he says, " 'Why don't I make a few more?' "
From there, Hewitt commissioned 125 copies, which were painstakingly hand stitched and bound using the same grade paper and type of Victorian starched cloth for the cover. "The craftsmen took great pride," he says. As did Hewitt, who, once the finished books arrived, asked real-life Titanic survivor Millvina Dean, 86, to inscribe a copy to Sarah. He gave it to her last Christmas, mounted in a presentation case alongside the 1912 edition. "It was worth doing," Hewitt says, "for Sarah, definitely."
Private collectors snapped up 53 copies of the handsome volumes for about $160 each. And Simon & Schuster in London contracted Hewitt to write an introduction for a paperback version, released this month in the U.K. and around the world (a U.S. edition may follow).
Still, one question lingers: Did Morgan Robertson really foresee the sinking of the Titanic? Martin Gardner, a renowned science and math writer—and leading debunker of bogus theories—says it's not likely. During extensive historical research for his 1986 book The Wreck of the Titanic Foretold?, Gardner discovered, among other things, that Robertson, a native of Oswego, N.Y., was a sailor before he took up writing—and that, by 1898, preliminary plans for a huge "unsinkable" ship had already been published. "They were even calling the ship the Gigantic," Gardner says. "And then some coincidences took over."
Well, at least there's one happy ending. When Hewitt presented Berry with her copy, she absolutely loved it. "I just looked at it and burst into tears," says Berry, who today shares a house in Sussex with Hewitt and their ever-growing stash of Titanic memorabilia. "It was an extremely romantic thing to do."
Simon Perry in London and Meg Grant in Miami
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine